MOSCOW, Russia - By becoming one of the final two at the VTB Kremlin Cup, Belinda Bencic is in the elite eight.
With a 6-3, 6-4 victory over Kristina Mladenovic in Saturday's first semifinal in Moscow, the 22-year-old Swiss seals the eighth and final spot in the singles field at the season-ending Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen.
Needing to reach at least reach the final and outperform Kiki Bertens to clinch the spot at the start of the week, Bencic overcame Mladenovic - Bertens' conquerer in the quarterfinals - to secure her season-ending debut, and third final appearance of the year.
"I'm so happy I reached the top eight. It was a huge goal for me this season and so last-minute," Bencic said on-court after the match.
"I was so nervous before the match, but also reaching the final here [in Moscow] tomorrow is amazing. I'm so happy.
"It was such a good level from us. We know each other well so that's why it was very tactical. I just tried to really focus on myself and keep my emotions under control.
"I'm very happy with how I fought all this tournament already."
— WTA (@WTA) October 19, 2019
Bencic got off to a quick start in the opening set, as she won the first three games to open up a 3-0 lead.
With a love hold to get on the board, however, Mladenovic began to establish momentum, and won three games of her own to level the set.
Looking to win a fourth game in a row, the Frenchwoman earned herself a break point in Bencic's ensuing service game at 3-3, but ultimately lost the last three games to surrender the opener.
After saving that key break point, Bencic broke serve for a second time, and saved another break point in her effort of serving out the set.
"It’s very difficult to play her. I think she’s really starting to play better again. Today, I think approached the match a little bit differently, I was only focusing on myself and what I had to do," Bencic said.
"I stepped up my game when I had to, just really focused on myself – which is easy to say but harder to do – and just keep my emotions under control, because obviously this [qualifying] was a big goal and I knew it was just one match away, and it was a unique opportunity."
— WTA (@WTA) October 19, 2019
The second set began in similar fashion, with the World No.10 as the first to break serve to lead 2-1. However, Mladenovic would again fight back, breaking immediately in response, and kept her nose in front with some determined play in the ensuing games.
The World No.45 saved three break points in each of her next two service games - holds to lead 3-2 and 4-3 - but proved unable to recover from a deficit for a third time.
Winning 12 of the last 13 points from the eighth game on, Bencic built a 0-40 lead at 4-4 and sealed the break to love, before holding to an indentical score to confirm her victory.
In a high-quality one hour and 35 minutes, both players tallied more winners than unforced errors, as Bencic scored her first win against Mladenovic in over four years. Bencic tallied 24 winners to just 12 unforced, winning 82 percent of the points behind her first serve, while Mladenovic recorded 30 winners and 28 unforced.
On Sunday, the Swiss will face three-time finalist, and 2014 champion, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who came through a three-set semifinal with Wimbledon quarterfinalist Karolina Muchova.
“I think whoever I play tomorrow, I’ll be very relaxed – normally I’m nervous in finals," Bencic said.
"I think tomorrow, I’ll just be so happy to be in the final and will enjoy it already knowing I’ll be in Shenzhen. This gives me a great feeling and hopefully I can take that into tomorrow and play even better.
"It means the world to me. Obviously, it was a big goal this season, particularly after I started it so strongly, and having put myself in a position to reach the WTA Finals I’m so happy now to have reached it.
"To do it at the last minute makes it even more emotional There was lots of pressure today and I was really nervous so I’m just over the moon to somehow have made it to the finals."